Monday, January 30, 2012

Why Dubai?

Why are you going there? they said. Dubai's a horrible place, someone else informed me. Never mind the oddity of telling someone that when they've just told you they've booked a holiday there - how sweeping a statement, and how ignorant of the possibilities that exist alongside the world's biggest shopping mall (we didn't even see it) and the enormous but rather inefficient airport. We went there, we stayed five nights which gave us four complete days, and I feel like a new woman.

I chose the picture on the left to sum up part of what was so good. The hotel had a lovely garden, full of pert birds that sang beautifully and were very tame, and there were comfortable loungers scattered throughout it. There were large, soft blue towels. When you had been on your lounger for a short while, a waiter - in a cricket hat and cream/fawn uniform, including trainers, would come over and offer to get you ... anything, really. We tended to opt for tea, green or peppermint.  We were easy pleased. And it was warm, warm like a perfect summer day in Scotland - hot, high sun, but a cool air which meant we could enjoy it for long enough to read, sleep, chat. I suppose it was about 24ºC in the first part of the afternoon. We both swam in the sea - though to be honest, it was so exhilaratingly bouncy that we tended to surf the waves rather than swim. The sea was also a bit Scottish summer - not warm, not the way it is when it's 40º on the beach - and had the same bracing effect. I loved it.

We were asked when we came home if we'd been able to wear swimsuits. Around the hotel, all we were asked in this Muslim country was that we wore a minimum of shirts and shorts - so we were spared the sight of fat men in semmits. On the beach, anything went, from the full cover-up of the black-clad women to the smallest bikinis and trunks.

What else did I love, other than the conditions that allowed me to relax so completely? One of the striking things about the hotel was the way the staff made a huge, international hotel feel like a bed and breakfast - because they were so friendly, so attentive, so ready to help, so smiling and cheerful even at the end of what must have been a long day. One of the waiters, a boy from Goa, told us that his name, Frezer, did indeed, somewhere in his family story,  have the Scottish connection that the sound if not the spelling suggested. I have to say I could get used to having someone anticipate my every whim - and even to being called "madame" at every turn. I guess that's what you pay for in the better hotel chains - the predictably good service and pleasant surroundings. The food was wonderful too - we never ate lunch as the breakfast buffet was amazing.

The hotel was right on a wonderful beach - Jumeirah Beach - and our balcony faced the sunset. In the pic on the right you can see the black shapes of the people who seemed to congregate there in the evening just to stand and watch as the sun dived towards the line of the Arabian Gulf. We walked along that beach in the mornings - it took about 90 minutes to walk to the end and back - collecting shells and watching sky-divers drifting down to land. It was spotlessly clean and felt somehow calm. I had wondered if I would be bored, but never got near boredom. I loved it.

Conspicuous consumption, a holiday like this? Well, no, not really. We could easily have gone much further upmarket on The Palm, for instance. Yes, it was an expensive four days, but it was a real holiday from greyness, cold, wet, winds, sinus infections, dark mornings and early nights, endless huvtaes. I will post more about things I saw and thought and learned, but this post is just to say it was worth every penny and I loved it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Online Evening Prayer

I've just been to Evening Prayer - sharing with people from Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen without even leaving my study. Google+ has opened up the possibility of online group video conferencing with its  'hangout' facility, and as far as I'm concerned gives a glimpse of how things might be much more accessible in our scattered diocese of Argyll and The Isles. The screenshot shows how it works - the liturgy on my main browser screen, shrunk to fit down the side of the new window that opens when you join a hangout, the participants down the side of the main picture which changes as different people speak. We were all wearing earphones, to cut down on interference, and for most of the service everyone other than the leader and one responder mutes their microphone so that there isn't the feedback of delayed sound coming through as everyone joins in the psalms and responses.

It all works amazingly effectively, even when we all unmute our microphones for the Magnificat and subsequent prayers and give rise to a disconcertingly Babelesque cacophony. As Kelvin remarked, rather like speaking in tongues.

What's not to like? It's free, it's useful, it only requires a decent connection and basic hardware. My earphone was a freebie on a tour of Pompeii and brings the necessary sense of intimate communication to the proceedings. I'm indebted to Kelvin for introducing me to the whole thing - watch this space!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Educational collaboration: a student's view

Every now and again there comes a comment on the blog that I wish could be seen by more people. Today I'm taking steps to make that happen. Last night a former pupil of mine left the following comment on my post about collaboration; with one stroke he allays the doubts I expressed and affirms the experience he had as a member of the class I describe. It seems one never gets over the positive effects of a bit of good consumer feedback!

This is what he had to say:

Duffy said...

Excellent post.
As someone who was a member of this class, I can honestly say that it was one of the most enjoyable learning experiences I had in secondary school - and for this very reason.
Helping the 'poorer' people in the class actually helped further *my* understanding of the topics at hand and we all really enjoyed listening and learning from each other - there was no patronising or arrogance, just fun. And yes, Ewan, we chose to do it; it seemed natural.
One of my greatest memories was doing 'Journey's End' - a play with an all male cast set in the trenches of WWI - and we had such fun! There were no inhibitions and everybody just 'went for it', which had a knock-on effect on other areas, such as our final S-Grade talks. We had the same level of confidence and enthusiasm, knowing that there was no judgment.
I remained in Mrs B's class for Higher, which was mixed, and I’m afraid to say it wasn't quite the same. The boys from the previous year (myself included) were thought of as loud-mouthed and over-confident, but for us speaking out and having good debates was what we knew – we’d been doing it since we were 12! We soon took the new members under our wing, but they never quite ‘got’ it and were fairly boring to be around as a result.
Collaborative and cooperative learning are now a huge part of my daily teaching and I always think about my time in English and hope my children are having as much fun as we had.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Seduced into education - again

I was seduced yesterday - my day taken over by the temptation to participate in an Education Think Tank at BETT. In London. No, I didn't actually go there - but having found the livestream online I lurked quietly for all of ten minutes before I found myself being drawn in. The first tweet gave me away, and from then on I might as well have been there. Seems that some of my experience is still relevant to the discussions that were taking place, and I found myself asking questions. One of them found a public response, and it is this that I want to explore now.

The question I asked, in a discussion on collaboration, was this: Does collaboration work to the advantage of all if there is inequality of ability? It might clarify where I was coming from if I sketch in what I had in mind as I asked. 

In the last ten years of my career, I made several discoveries about my own teaching. I volunteered to take an all-boys class for S2 in a year group with a preponderance of boys, thus freeing other colleagues who preferred mixed classes to get on with it. I've often cited this class as an example of the best experience I had as a teacher, and as an example of what can be achieved. In the end, I had the same class right to the end of S4. Three boys jumped ship at the end of S2 - they wanted to be in a class with girls. The others, who were all offered the possibility of reorganisation, stayed put. This gave a class of 28 boys, of whom five or so were expected to gain a Credit Grade 1 at the end of S4, and six of whom were classified as Foundation and destined to a grade 5 or 6. Completely mixed ability, then, but together from a stage when adolescent attitudes hadn't formed. 

I could wax boring about this class and the fascinating developments that took place over the year, but we're looking at collaboration here - collaboration between pupils. By the time we were in that first winter of Standard Grade, I could see that there were clear patterns springing up of collaboration among the boys. Most noticeable was the willingness of one of the very brightest in the class to sit down with possibly the poorest - intellectually, socially, in self-esteem - and quietly enable him to keep up with the rest of the class, pointing out how he could tackle a piece of writing, helping him to understand a bit of text that was causing bother, pairing him in Process Writing so that the limited subject-matter of the weaker student's writing was expanded and enhanced. He did all this quietly and unassumingly, and no-one raised an eyebrow. Other fruitful pairings grew up and flourished. When the results came out at the end of S4, no-one had a Foundation award. Fifteen had Credit passes, nine of them at level 1; the rest had 3 or 4. 

So it worked. But I used to look at what the more able boy put into this collaboration, and wonder what he was getting out of it. He'd certainly deepen his own understanding in the way I think we all do when we have to share our learning; he'd know he was doing something really important for another person; he'd feel a sense of achievement. But my job was to make sure his experience in the study of English was as enriching as possible. And I used to fret, slightly.

Now I'm not so sure. He's graduated from University and is doing well. He seemed to be happy with what he was doing, and he stayed with me for Higher English. Maybe what he learned from the process of collaboration was precious to him - I don't know. I'd love to have the chance to ask him. The other boy, who was a delight in that class, seems to have taken to a life of petty crime. His background was stacked against him, and I sometimes felt that the all-too-brief time of civilisation that he enjoyed during these three years was the only chance he ever had.

Maybe that's it. Maybe collaboration is the bedrock of civilised - and civilising - behaviour. And I haven't even started on the business of collaboration with one's colleagues in teaching. Guess that's for another post. Comments on a postcard, please .... you know what I mean...

Friday, January 13, 2012

To boldly go ...

There are some fascinating things coming out of the woodwork now that Scottish Independence is once more in the news. This bizarre star ship comes from a cartoon video on NMA.TV - do watch the whole thing if you feel the need to retain a sense of humour, as some of my friends obviously do. The trouble is that the old adage of not discussing contentious subjects at the dinner table now seems to apply, really, to only one subject: religion and sex don't seem to have the same effect any more. But politics?

Today I was discussing the effect that living through the Thatcher years as a Scottish adult might have had on those who shared this experience. I said in my last post that I was able to view The Iron Lady equably because my experiences of these years were history - but I know that I am still capable of the instant emotional response to a quip such as Kelvin Mackenzie couldn't resist making last night on Question Time - one about the possible name of a putative Scottish currency, punning on the word "Euro". Yes, it was funny, in a way, and I bet he just couldn't resist it, even after volubly expressing his opinion that Scotland should have its own way. But it grated.

Neither Douglas Alexander nor, more impressively, Nicola Sturgeon responded to this. Perhaps they thought it detracted from the real question. Perhaps it is better just to ignore buffoonery. But the casual assumption that it's always going to be all right to laugh - affectionately or not - at "the Jocks" (really) begins to grate. Apparently Michael Portillo, later in the evening, referred to the "infantilisation" of the Scots over the years, and he may well be right.

It's a fact that for a while people like me were lulled by the sounds of Scottish voices at the helm of the UK government. But now? We're not lulled any more, and Cameron is in danger of recreating the Thatcher effect.

Interesting times.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Cathartic Iron Lady

It is a tradition - or has been since work no longer interfered - to visit Glasgow on Mr B's birthday, meet rellies, take in a movie (fun that, to go to the cinema in the late morning with about 10 other people) and enjoy a late lunch somewhere nice (tapas, this year, and very enjoyable). Yesterday we went to see The Iron Lady. There were reasons for doubting the wisdom of choosing this over, say, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I'd read negative reactions from people I know, as well as glowing reviews from journalists I trust; I tend to favour the big action movie for the proper cinema with the super sound system and be content with more domestic action on the small screen; I loathed Thatcher and all that she stood for when she was in power. But the time was good for our day - time for coffee before and lunch afterwards so that we didn't fall asleep like the old fogies we become - and the consensus obvious, so Mr B spent a chunk of his birthday with Margaret Thatcher.

I was bowled over. It's a magnificent piece of acting on the part of Meryl Streep, for a start. Jim Broadbent was fascinating as Dennis - and the scenes of the young Margaret and Dennis fed convincingly into the couple we felt we knew at the time, and made the partnership credible. Yes, it brought back the rage and the frustration and the demonstrations I took part in; the sinking feeling after her third election victory and the sense of alienation from the British electoral process. But it brought it back in such a way that I knew it was over - history for Thatcher, history for me. What is not over is what happens to people as they grow old, and I was convinced by that too. I've read fictional accounts of dementia  and felt somehow cheered, and I know that there are wonderful moments of hilarity in the life of a friend who now suffers from dementia, but this film showed another side. Along side the chuckle-producing moments with the recurring visions of the deceased Dennis, there were the moments of despair, exhaustion, bewilderment - and the all-too-obvious physical effort of being ...  old.

I don't see me struggling into smart frocks and pearls in my eighties - don't do it now, for heaven's sake - but I was made to think about the illusions we create, the armour we put on, the show of strength that becomes pathetic as we diminish. It was this that stayed with me and had me reaching for the wine-glass over lunch, and this that makes me wonder if our reactions to the film are coloured by our stage in life.

The film has its entertaining moments, but it is not mere entertainment. For me, it was as striking as any tragedy, complete with fatal flaw and the fall from a great height. And like a good tragedy, it achieves catharsis.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Visceral learning

It's almost the end of the school holidays, and the thoughts of even this retired teacher turn, once more, to education. Is it my coming to the end of a job which involved setting exams for standardised testing? I don't know. But in conversation the other day I found myself stating the three most important facets of my own education - most important in that they are foundational to the me that is me now, today, the person who recognises her own strengths and is confident in the use of them and in the acknowledging of weakness in other areas.

9 yr old blethers
I learned to read long before I started school. I can remember the look of a particular book of numbers and letters to which I was devoted - and the setting of my memory makes me three years old, as my mother was in the nursing home giving birth to the sister who is three years younger than me. I can recall all too readily the excruciating boredom of listening to other children in my Primary One class struggling to read aloud to the teacher, of hating one poor girl because of her hesitant voice and the long silences between words ... syllables ... Her name was Carol. What I don't remember is being made to learn letters and words. They seem to have come to me in the daily business of living, and there was certainly no pain or resentment involved. And  by the age of seven I was reading Treasure Island.

For the last twenty years or so, I have known about poetry. That sounds very prosaic, at once sweeping and vague. But I mean I know how poetry works, why it works; I have learned how the right word in the right place can stir emotion in the reader, how a sudden shining image can transform a piece of writing - or a sermon, come to that - and I have explored these exciting possibilities in my own writing. And how did this come about? I certainly wasn't like this as a young teacher, let alone as a student at school or university. What brought about the epiphany?

I think it can only be described as a visceral need to know. Poetry, as my father's wonderful note on the subject began, poetry, like all the arts, is useless. There is no practical need for it - so it's not like basic reading skills. Somewhere along the road, however, teaching Larkin's poetry to seniors, I suddenly got it. And I have this picture of myself, on either a holiday or recovery from a sickie, sitting at the table in our dining room with three books open in front of me - the Selected Letters, Andrew Motion's A Writer's Life,  and Larkin's Collected Poems. For perhaps the first time in my life I was behaving like a real student, reading, comparing, contextualising, making notes - and all for my own enjoyment. There was no reason for this depth of study in terms of the teaching I had to do, but for the fifteen years or so after this event I was aware of the added depth, the insights I was able to share, the asides that would bring a poem to life for someone else. I did the same with the work of R.S.Thomas, buying slim volumes eagerly as they came out, even copying a whole collection laboriously by hand into a notebook when I realised it was out of print. I studied his style as it changed over the years, his subject matter, his autobiographical writings; I read both the unauthorised biography by Justin Wintle and the much more perceptive one by Byron Rogers. Two summers ago I visited two of R.S.'s parishes, and bought another small collection I'd never encountered. Two weeks ago, I re-read some of his work and was able to find the words to write another poem of my own. No purpose here, only enrichment and excitement.

The third leg of this self-motivated learning props up what I am doing at this very moment. From the day when I decided that I wanted to touch-type while my second-born infant had his afternoon nap, I was on the road to being what I am probably best known for now. I asked a friend who taught Business Studies if there was a good way to learn this skill; he gave me an old school text-book to prop up beside my portable typewriter and I started - two fingers, two hands, three fingers .... Then came the day, years later and back teaching,  when I sacked most of the pupils who could use Adobe Pagemaker and had to learn desktop publishing for myself, and my latest forays involve YouTube videos and Google+ hangouts. You could argue that there was a degree of practical necessity in there - the magazine would have died the death had I not learned to format it - but there was no compulsion for me to run it at all. It was fun, though.

And that last sentence sums the whole thing up. It was fun. It is fun. Nowadays, I'll not stick with anything that doesn't engage and absorb me. The idea of sitting for hours on uncomfortable bench seats at cramped desks listening to boring teachers talking about quadratic equations appalls me. (When did you last use a quadratic equation?) What a dreadful penance to impose on the innocent young. What did it do for me? Even in the English class I found a way to opt out and became expert at reading under the desk, where I would stash a pack of Mintolas to sweeten the experience (soft enough to swallow whole to avoid detection). Now, if we'd been exploring our own passions, I could have told you all about the vicissitudes of first century Rome - for that was an enthusiasm of my mid-teens.

And that too was fun.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Back to the stone age?

Photo: Campbell Bryson
I'm indebted to (brave/foolhardy/dedicated) local photographer Campbell Bryson for the photo that  I'm too much of a wimp to go out and take for myself - this huge tree, blocking Argyll Street in Dunoon, is very close to home, but as I write the rain is once more battering down and I'm here instead of out there and .... and ....

And this morning brought home to me yet again how precarious our comfortable life is. We woke in the dark, some time before 7am, to hear an ominous crashing above our heads - and then there was a flash outside and the whole of Dunoon went dark. The torches were downstairs, and I found myself feeling my way to the kitchen to find one - walked into the long-case clock on the way - before trying, unsuccessfully, to sleep again. Daylight revealed our neighbour walking across the road carrying a long piece of ridging from - his roof? our roof? Could have been either, for his house and ours and the one at the other side of our block are all missing yards of the stuff, with the remaining bits sticking up at crazy angles. And now, as I said, the rain is back ... Let us not think on't.

The lack of power was interesting. We have a couple of gas fires, so the demise of the central heating pump wasn't quite the catastrophe it might have been, but there was no hot water and I had to boil water for tea on a little camping stove. We'd thrown out our stove-top kettle too, so it was in a pot ... And then there was the matter of the toast. I made toast. Barbecue tongs and the gas flame after the water boiled. Quite quick - but different texture and a tendency to go on fire. Better than the raw bread, however.

All this took so much time - and even with the decision not to wash up until we had hot water, the business of dealing with the wee stove, finding a suitable pot, refilling same, finding more candles ... it was almost time to think of doing it over again (for coffee) when the power came on. But not once had I thought of how I was missing my computer, nor wondered what I would do with the day - and I realised that the ordinary business of living could fill your entire waking life with activity if you had to boil every drop of water for drinking, washing, bathing, if you had to light your way with a candle or replenish an oil lamp.

As it is, I bet we have water coming into our roof-space right now, soaking wood and dripping dismally. I'm not going to think about it any more. I've just heard that the place we rehearse with 8+1 has lost part of its roof altogether. Maybe we could worry about that instead ...

Monday, January 02, 2012

Glass baubles and messages

Glass bauble
Originally uploaded by goforchris.
I was remarking with friends last night how traditional my style of Christmas tree is. We sat, side by side on the sofa, mellow with drink and food, and stared at it: multi-coloured lights, random decorations from the past 40 years, and fragile glass baubles, eight of them, which have miraculously survived their annual trip down the loft ladder and back, as well as two flittings. My memories had been further jogged by the sight of the Downton Abbey tree, dripping with lametta - I remember that my father always insisted that there had to be a generous quantity of lametta or it just looked silly, and who was I to demur? It's many years since I used these silver strips to hang from the tips of the branches (a third of its length to be draped over, the rest to dangle), but I replaced my forty-year-old multicoloured Pifco lights only last year (they had died in their box) and they in turn had been my attempt to replicate the inch-long pointed coloured bulbs of my parent's lights.

Of course, I've been on about all this before, as several of the links above will lead the diligent new reader to discover. But last night the brain wandered off somewhere, and lo: there were other memories. Like being sent for the messages. What age was I, for example, when I had to go for potatoes by myself? Maybe six, seven? I remember being given the brown leather shopping bag, with a folded newspaper inside. Don't forget to get the paper put under the potatoes to keep the bag clean. And off I went, up Novar Drive to the top, to the grocer's shop in what we called "Wee Hyndland", the row of shops opposite St Brides Episcopal Church and Hyndland Parish Church in all their red sandstone splendour. There were no roads to be crossed - presumably it was thought a safe errand. It was, however, terrifying. First I had to make myself seen in the queue of adults - women, natch - and hand my bag over to a large man with a bald head and a blue apron. It was all very well for my mother to direct him what to do with the newspaper, but words failed me and I watched despairing as he shot a shiny scale-pan of earthy potatoes - could it have been half a stone? a quarter stone? - into the bag in which I could see the still-folded paper reposing uselessly down one side.

I think I got a row for that, and I know I suffered mass disapprobation on the day when, for some unfathomable reason, I was sent to collect the newspapers for all the houses in 66 Novar Drive. It was a windy day. Much of the "pavement" was a muddy sidewalk beside allotments (plots?). People didn't like their mud-spattered, randomly-ordered newspapers. But I think I was maybe five at the time, and looking back I think there was either lunacy or child-abuse at work.

Amazing, isn't it, what can come to mind under the stimulus of a drop of champagne and the peeling of some King Edwards?

That's Christmas for you ...